What Washington can agree on: Golf

David Gura Jun 17, 2011

What Washington can agree on: Golf

David Gura Jun 17, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: This is a big weekend for golfers — especially those within driving distance of the Washington Beltway. The U.S. Open’s at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. But for those who like a little politics with their 18 holes, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will tee off together on Saturday.

Golf has played a big part in the business of Washington for decades. But politics are changing that.

Marketplace’s David Gura has more.

David Gura: You might not know this, but there’s a Congressional Golf Task Force.

Joe Baca: On both sides, you know, there’s quite a few golfers — both Republican and Democrats — that love the game.

That’s Caucus Chairman Joe Baca, a Democrat from California. He keeps a handwritten roster of every golfer in the House and Senate.

Baca: Tim Ryan, Mike Doyle, Cedric Richmond, Ed Perlmutter…

Baca calls himself “an avid golfer.” He plays on weekends. He practices his swing in a gym on Capitol Hill. And Baca says the game makes him a more-effective congressman.

Baca: You’re able to build a relationship, and building the relationship with someone becomes very important and critical on the legislation, because then people say, “Well, you’re not such a bad guy, you know?”

Golf’s also an easy way to raise money.

Baca: People sometimes get tired of going to a banquet, you know? It’s like, “Another rubber chicken?!”

Those supporters jump at the chance to play golf with politicians at tournaments that take place in Washington, and at clubs across the country.

Don Van Natta: Bill Clinton played with contributors who gave $50,000 for the privilege of playing a round with the President of the United States.

Don Van Natta, Jr. wrote a book about presidents and golf, called “First Off The Tee.” There are restrictions now — on donations to campaigns and political action committees, or PACs — but it can still cost several thousand dollars to play in a tournament. Lobbying rules have also changed since Clinton was president.

Congressman John Yarmuth remembers what it used to be like.

John Yarmuth: Under the old rules, a lobbyist could take you out — I worked on the Hill in the early ’70s, and it was routine for a lobbyist to invite even a staffer at that point and play, and that doesn’t happen anymore.

That’s made Fred Eames’ job harder. He’s an energy lobbyist who has played golf at tournaments, alongside Speaker Boehner.

Fred Eames: You almost can’t buy somebody a cup of coffee anymore.

Never mind a round of golf, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Eames laments what happened to, what he calls, “the social aspect” of politics.

Eames: People have tried to weed that out of politics, thinking that there’s something nefarious behind it; and frankly, I think it’s essential to the kind of compromise that a lot of people would like to see in politics.

He says golf is a way to make contacts and to forge friendships…

Eames: And building those sorts of relationships are valuable for the business that comes later.

I asked Peter Finch if it’s impolite to talk shop while you play. He’s an editor at “Golf Digest.” The magazine just ranked the most-prominent golfers in Washington by handicap, and Eames, Yarmuth and Baca are near the top.

Peter Finch: You don’t usually do it on the first tee, and you probably don’t do it on the 18th green, but somewhere between No. 1 and No. 18, you find time to bring up what you need to bring up, and it works.

Spokesmen for the White House and the speaker say we shouldn’t expect a deal tomorrow, but some are holding out hope that somewhere on the back nine, the conversation might turn from drivers and divots — to the debt.

In Washington, I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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